We're up before dawn, and eat breakfast while we're waiting for enough light to gather the cattle. It's day two of take up. Steers were gathered and sent to market yesterday, heifers go today.
Working cattle into a pen with family represents both the best and worst parts of farming. We are up early enough to appreciate the sun slanting through a gap in the mountains as it rises, lighting up fall-tinted trees like rows of candles set out to celebrate the coming of day. Haystacks and cattle both send luminous plumes of steam skyward in the chilly air, and the morning smells like ripe apples and pears and crisp leafy duff and woodsmoke.
Working cattle is also a time when I appreciate how much my little boys have matured into men. They are experts at moving the stormy waves of cattle calmly through gates with only some whistles and a well placed four wheeler. I have learned through the years where to stand to be helpful, but still my children insist on giving me directions. "Move in closer Mom. No, stand over there. Wave your stick." I tell them that I would make a great cattle dog, but the truth is that there is real joy in working with my boys-become-men who no longer need to be told what to do. When did they become so knowledgeable and confident?
As always, I am amazed by my husband's ability to stand in a gateway and direct cattle hither and yon with a gentle tap of his stick or a slight side-step to the right or left. I once called him the Baryshnikov of the cattle ballet and he still dances as lightly with cows as he ever did. The extra bonus is that my boys have both learned the same dance steps. I am not brave enough to stand in a crowded pen full of side-kicking cows, but they step in unfazed and direct traffic until all the cows and calves are sorted through the various gates.
But, cattle sorting also represents the dangerous side of farming. It involves zipping about on four-wheelers tilted sideways on dew covered hills as cattle are funneled to the gate. I am aware that I do not know the number of times my children have rolled their four-wheelers because they occasionally let slip a story I haven't heard before about a spill or tumble. This morning, Scott confidently spins some donuts in the field behind the cows as he waits for them to cross a mucky ditch. I cover my eyes. I pray better that way.
Stressful days have also included cattle breaking down fences, kicking or shitting on whoever is in the pen, or turning around in the middle of the chute until they are stuck and can't move in any direction. I remember a heifer who once got so stuck that we had to dismantle part of the fence to get her out. Tempers rise and subside when things like this go wrong, but they always roll through as quickly as a fall shower and end quickly as things sort themselves out.
This is my 28th year of working cattle. This morning I realized that I've learned a few things over the years. I'm not as afraid of cows as I used to be and that's helpful, because unlike sheep, you need to crowd them a bit to get them to move where you want them to go. Stand too far back and they'll make a break for it. I've also learned that if you don't get them gathered on the first pass, it's not the end of the world. Chase cattle long enough, and they'll eventually go where you want them. I've learned that there will be some yelling but none of it should be taken personally. Except maybe by the cows. We want them to take it personally so they'll move on up the $%&* chute. Cattle don't respect the word "please."
I have learned not to sweat the small stuff. We lost a calf one year as we were unloading animals into the sale pens. That little jailbird roamed the county for over two months and I worried about him as he wandered. I figured he'd get hit by a car or hung in one of the fences he was crawling through and we'd never see him again. Several friends tried to capture him for us, but he was spooky and always escaped. Eventually, he joined a neighbor's herd and when the farmer gathered his cattle, he sorted the calf out and called us to come pick him up.
Finally, I've learned that you can never predict how things will go. I was sure the cows would be hard to corral today. After all we chased them around yesterday. Why would they want to go through that again? But, I was wrong. They sauntered in, complacent and compact. None jumped fences, hung themselves up in the chute or stepped on anyone. The only accident was a bright green fountain of poo that bubbled out from under a lifted tail right onto Joe's leg. Here on the farm, we call that a pretty good day.